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On the artist's trail

The Yellow road


A starry-eyed fan's first brush with the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

My first sighting was at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. The Moulin de la Galette took a long time to sink in, but the power and immediacy of its strong brush strokes soon brought home the fact that I was actually standing in front of a Van Gogh. The earthy, brown colours, the brilliance of the strokes and the windmill will stay with me for a long time to come.

What is it about the lonely and tormented Dutch artist that arouses such intense feelings in the viewer? Is it the honesty and childlike innocence with which he makes rough, vibrant, vehement strokes of colour? Or is it his intriguing preoccupation with nocturnal themes? Whatever the reason, his canvasses are compelling. Sometimes they make me cry, leave me angry and at times hit a nerve.

In the ten years that Van Gogh was active as an artist, he produced about 1, 000 drawings, water colours and sketches and 1, 250 paintings. In his lifetime, he sold but one painting for 400 francs: Red Vineyard, just four months before he shot himself one afternoon in 1890. The obvious next stop for a fan of the artist is Amsterdam where the Van Gogh museum has the largest holding of the post-Impressionist's works in the world. All those works, of which I had only read about or seen in photographs until now, were right there before my eyes, breathing and glowing and pulsating with life. The Potato Eaters - his first major painting in which he depicted peasants as they really were, with all the hardship and labour and honesty of their lives - was a revelation. Next came his boldly signed Sunflowers, the most famous still life in history, and his Yellow House in Arles. One can see how closely woven were emotion and colour, especially yellow - "a sun, a light, which for want of a better word I must call pale sulphur-yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!"

His self-portraits were poignant, his gloomy eyes searching for something. One can trace his life's journey through his paintings : his first rejection in love, his failed attempt at being a preacher, his tormented days as a struggling artist, the most anguished time of his life, and finally his lonesome death. After a long, full day, I thought my dream was fulfilled. What more could one ask for? But just sometimes, you get more than you ask for. On the last day of my Europe tour, the god of happy accidents smiled on me. While driving from Paris to the nearby village of Cergy, I spotted a sign pointing towards Auvers. Soon, another board read: Maison de Van Gogh. All plans made for that last day were chucked, and we decided to follow the arrow. Along the way, we stumbled upon Dr Paul Gachet's home the benevolent old man who kept the frantic artist company in his last few days at Auvers. He has been immortalised by the painter in the Portrait of Dr Gachet as the country doctor with his distraught head resting against his right hand. Walking down the narrow lane to reach the house gave me an eerie feeling: I was actually tracing his footsteps! The trees stood there, tall and strong and timeless. The house was there intact, now converted into a museum. These structures bore testimony to the last days of the artistic genius, his loneliness and his eventual death. We then headed out to the inn where he lived.

L'Auberge Ravoux can easily be missed. More so, the board which reads: Vincent Van Gogh lived and died here. But for those with Vincent on their radar, it is visible enough. On spotting it, I darted across the road and hurriedly purchased a ticket to enter and see his room. While climbing up the stairs, I shuddered at the thought that these had been used by the artist himself, one last time after he shot himself and got back to his room to spend two days before he died. Room number 5 was never let again. It is tiny and bare with one chair. There is a small opening from where a stream of sunlight entered - the only source of hope, perhaps, for the artist. The room radiated loneliness and despair, two of Van Gogh's most faithful companions. I could hear Don McLean's clean voice in the recesses of my head: "For they could not love you, but still your love was true. And when no hope was left in sight, on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do. But I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you". In the adjacent room was a big black bed, on which he breathed his last, in conversation with Theo about childhood and his days in Holland.

I stood there, too moved to speak. Dominique-Charles Janssens, the director of the place, comes up to me and says: "I don't do this often, but since you seem to like him so much, here is a memento you may keep. " It was a copy of the key to the room.
We got greedy, feeling that the serendipity could not possibly end here. We went looking for the Auvers church, the image of which must surely be etched in the mind of anyone who has seen the painting The Church at Auvers with its disturbingly distorted lines. The cemetery was not very far. It lay tucked in the corner of vast wheat fields. I immediately thought of one of his last paintings: Wheat Field with Crows, the haunting, ominous painting that seems almost to portend his death. The dejected artist had written to Theo about it: "They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness. "

Inside the cemetery, I spotted the twin graves. If anyone wanted further proof of the brothers' everlasting bond, it is here. "Ici repose Vincent Van Gogh". "Ici repose Theo Van Gogh". On Vincent's grave was a lone sunflower.


Auguste Rodin |
Musêe Rodin, Paris, opened in 1919, two years after the sculptor's death, it hosts "The Thinker" and "The Kiss".

Henri Matisse |

Musêe Matisse in Nice is a hilltop museum that provides a wide-ranging overview of the painter's life and work.

Paul Klee |

Since 2005, more than 40 per cent of Klee's work has been housed in the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. The building was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Joan Miro |

Fundaci? Joan Mir?, Barcelona has a remarkably comprehensive collection of over 14, 000 pieces, many donated by Mir? himself.

Edvard Munch |

Munch's legacy to the city of Oslo forms the basis of the collection at the Munch Museet.

Reader's opinion (1)

Radha NairNov 11th, 2011 at 10:18 AM

Beautiful article. Exquisitely written.

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